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Robles, a Phoenix resident from Mexico, is here legally. But he's not a naturalized citizen, so technically, he can't vote. That doesn't mean he can't get his voice heard. He tried it four years ago, as a volunteer with the Kerry presidential campaign.
"I got about 10 people to vote who weren't gonna vote in 2004," says Robles, whose day job is as a market research analyst for a Phoenix helicopter manufacturer. "That's not a lot, but that's nine more than just me."
He'll pound the pavement for another presidential candidate again this election season. This time, it's Barack Obama.
Robles' sidewalk stumping demonstrates how the brown vote might just make a difference this year.
I told Earl DeBerge, a Phoenix pollster, about Robles. He was impressed. "He's a very smart man," DeBerge says. "There are so many ways to vote. People will respond if they are asked to participate. Just put your energy behind a candidate. It doesn't mean cheating; it means getting people to vote. I applaud him."
In fact, DeBerge suggests Robles' method might be more clever than a campaign that yielded more than a million potential immigrant voters last year. The National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO) launched a nationwide voter registration drive on the Univision TV network that tapped into widespread frustration over immigration reform. As a result, many longtime legal residents finally decided to naturalize — and vote in November.
Together, such efforts could really make the brown voice heard, including in Arizona, where Latino voter turnout has increased in recent years but still lags behind white turnout, according to a study released this month by Project Vote Smart.
DeBerge says Latinos are poised to make a big difference locally this year.
"All data nationally and locally in Arizona suggests a movement. They are likely to be a force," he says. "The vote is increasingly important and will be potent. Upwards of 20 percent of Arizona voters are now Latino. These numbers weigh carefully. We are going to see the same stuff here in Arizona that happened a decade or more ago in California. [Latinos] are energized by anger. Don't be surprised if they make themselves heard."
Teresa Pena, 43, a Phoenix resident, recently got her papers in order. She'll vote this year — she says she wants to express her opposition to the war in Iraq. Efrain Robles, 25, still won't have his papers, but he's finally ready to be done feeling like an outsider, he says.
"I'm the quintessential wetback. It's true. My back was literally wet when I came over here," says Robles, who floated across the Rio Grande to America on an inner tube when he was 5. "The term was coined for people like me.
"I remember thinking to myself, this is fun! When you are 5, you don't know anything. Until I saw my mom's face; she was frightened and worried. After all, her 5-year-old son was in the middle of the river."
When he was 15, the Mexican Consulate in Phoenix helped Robles and his family become legal residents.
"Unfortunately, I still see myself as an outsider just because of the color of my skin. Even if I was a citizen I would still be an outsider. I'm just more of an outsider. I'm a non-entity. Now, my goal is to go from non-entity to an entity."
Like many people in his situation, he can't afford the near $700 price tag to naturalize. (That's a pricey vote!)
"For me, it comes down to money. It becomes a very difficult process, to live paycheck-to-paycheck to make ends meet, pay your bills. I don't have extra capital lying around," Robles says. "A lot of people will make that an excuse, but you can't stop. You gotta find a way."
He did. "I know I couldn't vote. But I have tons of friends who are citizens. They can. You start talking to them, you tell them why you support a candidate, and you give them an incentive to get off their ass and vote. I'll say, hey, I'll buy you a beer if you vote."
Go 'head, Efrain. Not bad for a kid who bobbed across the Rio Grande. Thanks for getting Brown Town to the ballot box. One beer at a time.